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Flush with cash, Virginia lawmakers push bigger raises for teachers

Dels. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), left, and Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William), the appropriations chairman in the Virginia House, confer in Richmond. (Bob Brown/AP)

RICHMOND — Virginia Democrats have money to go along with their newfound grip on power, and on Sunday, state lawmakers rolled out budget proposals that seek bigger raises for teachers and state employees along with a host of other spending increases.

House and Senate money committees both emphasized education as they presented separate packages of amendments to the two-year spending plan introduced by Gov. Ralph Northam (D) in December.

In the House, the Appropriations Committee proposed teacher pay increases of 2 percent for both years of the budget; Northam’s plan calls for a 3 percent raise only in the second year.

The Senate Finance and Appropriations Committee proposed a 3 percent bonus the first year and a 4 percent raise in the second.

The Democratic majorities in both chambers have plenty to work with in their spending plans, with the state’s economy booming and revenue rolling in. Northam’s proposed budget included $200 million in unallocated money for lawmakers to divvy up and on Friday, the governor issued a new forecast that projected almost $300 million more from better-than-expected tax collections.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman Luke E. Torian (D-Prince William) said his committee would use that money plus various trims throughout the budget to fund the pay increases and other priorities.

Torian called the package of amendments to Northam’s spending plan “the most progressive in Virginia’s history . . . while maintaining fiscal responsibility.”

The House plan calls for putting more than $520 million into the state’s reserve funds — an increase of $222 million above Northam’s request. That would bring the total reserve balance to $2.2 billion, House budget officials said.

Setting aside the extra money “guards Virginia’s Triple-A bond rating,” Torian said.

The Senate plan also would beef up reserve funds, but not quite as generously as the House.

Just as they differed on pay raises, the two chambers favored slightly different approaches to boosting education spending, though both endorsed Northam’s plan for pre-K programs. The House went higher on at-risk students and lower on hiring more guidance counselors. The Senate wants to restart a grant program for school construction.

The House calls for freezing tuition at the state’s colleges and universities for the coming year, extending a voluntary freeze that was in effect last year. The Senate instead favors putting money into college affordability programs.

Both also funded Northam’s plan for offering free community college tuition for low-income people seeking job training, though the amounts were different.

Several dozen teacher advocates showed up at the legislative office building on Sunday, wearing red shirts and holding signs calling for higher pay. Virginia ranks near the bottom nationally in teacher compensation.

The House’s proposal just keeps pace with the cost of living, Virginia Education Association President Jim Livingston said, but it’s better than what Northam had offered.

“It is a significant step forward,” Livingston said. “We are so far behind it’s going to take year over year of major investment . . . to get teachers’ salaries to the national average in the state of Virginia.”

Both chambers are also setting aside money in anticipation of increasing the minimum wage, which would affect contractors and some state workers. The House and Senate have each passed slightly different versions of a wage increase bill, so the hit on the budget won’t be clear until they settle on a compromise approach.

On health care, the House and the Senate both called for more spending than Northam, particularly in setting higher rates for Medicaid reimbursement to encourage doctor participation. The Senate balked at Northam’s ambitious plan to set up a reinsurance program in the individual health insurance market.

Each chamber also called for reducing the amount of borrowing proposed by the governor, shaving college capital programs and trimming big proposals for environmental preservation. They preserved Northam’s call for new taxes on gasoline and cigarettes, though the rates vary.

While this year’s General Assembly session has been marked by ideological convulsions, with Republicans complaining that Democrats are pushing too much change, the budget packages sailed out of both committees with bipartisan support.

The Senate panel endorsed its amendments with a unanimous vote, then gave committee staffers a standing ovation. On the House side, one Republican — Del. Nick Rush (Montgomery) — cast a lone vote against the proposals, but said his position was based solely on the failure to set aside more money for improvements to rural schools.

Otherwise, Rush said, the package was “a fiscally sound budget. This is a budget that we can move forward with.”

The amendments will now go to the floor of each chamber, where they could change again, and then the House and the Senate will try to iron out differences before the General Assembly adjourns on March 7.

Virginia Democrats push liberal agenda — with a dose of caution

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